INTERVIEW – Fr. Mario Cornioli, an Italian “Fidei Donum” priest for the Latin Diocese of Jerusalem, in the parish of St. Joseph, Jabal Amman in Jordan, agreed to talk to the Media Office of the Latin Patriarchate about the activity of the Habibi Valtiberina Association, of which he is the director.
1. The Habibi Valtiberina Association – as read on its website – is an association of social promotion, apolitical and non-denominational to assist “in the management of so many social solidarity initiatives in support of the Holy Land.” What are these initiatives? Where do you operate?
Habibi Valtiberina began in 2013 after a pilgrimage in the Holy Land by a group of friends from Valtiberina, the very beautiful valley where I was born 48 years ago. I was in Beit Jala and I was already working to build bridges between the Patriarchate and Italy. And for several years I was taking care of Italian pilgrims and some children of the “Hogar Niño Dios” of Bethlehem. During a visit with some of these friends, we decided to open this association in Italy to coordinate aid and support the home of “Jesus’ children.”
In recent years Habibi Valtiberina has helped the Hogar very much by supporting some campaigns aimed at expanding the project. In 2015, with my move to Jordan, Habibi Valtiberina also started helping me in the new service with Iraqi refugees. For more than a year now, the association has been recognized by the Jordanian Ministry of Social Development and this has allowed us to access some important funding for the various projects. However, the main contribution came from Italy thanks to the voluntary “eight-per-thousand” donations of the faithful to the Catholic Church. Thanks to these contributions, some workshops have been activated to allow refugees to learn a trade and at the same time be able to earn something to keep their families going. To date, we have about 130 people among Iraqi refugees and Jordanian women participating in the various projects. We have workshops where we make pecorino and ricotta, mozzarella and primo sel cheese, fresh pasta and sauces, jams and tarts, pizza and ice cream. In addition to this, we have workshops where we make mosaics, ceramics, and leatherwork. We also have a small cooperative that does maintenance and above all a beautiful fashion studio with a “Rafedin” brand that has now become quite famous among the international community of Amman.
2. Can you tell us specifically about the “Rafedin Iraqi Girls” project? In what context was it born and how did these women react? What are the results of this professional training project?
Rafedin is the story of a miracle that was born 4 years ago from a friendship with Rosaria, a dressmaker from Cerignola, who knowing my service with the refugees asked me what she could do to help me. I invited her to come and she trusted me. So, we did the first cutting and sewing course with 15 Iraqi girls who arrived in Jordan as refugees after the expulsion from their villages by ISIS. Rafedin means “The two rivers”, (the Tigris and Euphrates which enclose Mesopotamia, the land of Iraq) and the name was chosen by the girls themselves in memory of their land.
Rafedin is a workshop where they can learn a trade that could be useful for their future, a peaceful place where they can spend their day otherwise spent in front of the phone; it’s a place where they can express their talents and create beautiful things. The most important thing about the project, however, is certainly that of having brought the smile back to the girls’ faces.
From the beginning, I realized that it wasn't enough to help refugees with food and medicine, but that what they needed was to spend their time in a useful way, instead of staying at home doing nothing. Therefore, the project to create job opportunities was born in the parish of St. Joseph in Jabal Amman.
The first years were not easy and we were able to support the project with the help of some friends, until, in collaboration with ATS and the contribution of the CEI aforementioned “eight-per-thousand”, in October 2018 we managed to build a beautiful workshop inside the Pastoral Center “Mar Yousef” (St. Joseph).
In these 4 years, about 60 girls have been able to learn the art of sewing and today, thanks to the invaluable support of the French government through its embassy in Amman, 20 girls attend the workshop every day from 9:00 -16:00 excluding Sunday, the day dedicated to the Lord.
3. It’s an excellent initiative to give those who have lost everything a chance, offering skills to people who can feel useful again and work with dignity, waiting for a return to their country. Let’s talk, among others, about the professional training courses in the catering sector developed with the “Mar Yousef’s Pizza” project. Can you tell us the details of this beautiful initiative?
Even the pizzeria is the story of a dream that has come true. When Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa appointed me for the parish of St. Joseph in Jabal Amman, together with the parish priest Fr. Wissam we started to work to make the old Pastoral Center more and more beautiful and welcoming. The idea was to rearrange the old kitchen of the oratory and create a pizzeria where you can do training courses for aspiring chefs and waiters and, thanks to the contribution of the Sacred Convent of Assisi, Confartigianato Italia together with a small contribution of the Italian Cooperation, we succeeded in the company also because we are convinced that the best way to help refugees is to help them with dignity. Above all, they asked us to work and to spend time constructively instead of staying at home. For this reason, on October 26, 2017, we inaugurated the “Mar Yousef’s Pizza” project, which today involves 28 refugees. The Pastoral Center, located in the center of Amman has a beautiful outdoor space, which has allowed many people to be able to appreciate the goodness of Italian pizza slices and has enjoyed great success in these two and a half years of life. The project slowly grew with the creation of a fresh Pasta workshop, with a new kitchen that prepares dishes with Italian specialties, with a small workshop where we make fresh cheeses such as mozzarella and, since last September, also with an artisan workshop for the production of an excellent Italian ice cream, a project financed by UNICEF.
4. In addition to Jordan, the Habibi Association is also active in Palestine, in Bethlehem, where it supports the “Hogar Niño Dios” children’s home run by the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, the women’s branch of the Institute of Incarnate Word. What does their work consist of and how does Habibi support these sisters in their daily lives with the children?
The House of the Child Jesus of Bethlehem was the “first love” and continues a bit to be my home. Since 2005, when for the first time I knocked on the doors of the Hogar and found Sister Jesus and Sister Christ together with the first 3 children, I fell in love with that reality by taking it to heart. It was my first home for which I spent most of my time in the Holy Land. With Habibi’s friends, we supported the house very much, bringing material and voluntary help to serve the little “baby Jesus”. Every year, in the Christmas holidays, we launched campaigns to arrange a piece of the house or to buy the minibuses... always ready to support the growth of this incredible experience. The physical distance and the difficulty of passing from one country to another in the diocese no longer allow me to always be present, but I am there in a different way. The association’s commitment is continuing even now... for example, for last Christmas, we collected the money necessary for the construction of some special rooms, for the new home of the boys who have grown up and who need new and larger spaces.
5. Finally, a question about the future. If Providence continues to bless your work that is doing so much good, what do you expect for the next few years? Do you have something planned for Easter?
As for the future, my desire is to continue serving the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in the best possible way. The only program I would like to do is the Will of God. Being able to spend my life as a priest in the Holy Land is a gift that the Lord has given me and one that I hope will continue for so many years. The mission of us priests is to serve with gratuitousness by trying to build bridges, first with heaven and then also with the other brothers whom the Lord places next to you. I was touched by the children of Bethlehem, the Iraqi refugees, the Jordanian families of the parish and the Italian community that for two years has been in the parish of Jabal Amman. These are the people I must love and whom God has entrusted to me to be their father and son.
As for the projects, the dairy will soon be expanded to produce pecorino and ricotta. It’s a project that will be financed by USAID and that will allow 12 other Jordanian women to learn the ancient dairy art. But we still have many ideas in the works, as it were, which we entrust to the Lord and which we hope to tell you as soon as possible.